The Falcons set the tone right from the start with a dominant running game as they jumped out to an early 17-0 lead. But as the game went on they let it slip away, eventually allowing the Saints to narrow the gap to 17-13 late in the third quarter.
But the Falcons were able to muster up yet another great fourth quarter performance, extending their lead to 23-13 on two Matt Bryant field goals as they were able to hold on for the win over their division rivals.
Here's a look at the Falcons' final game grades.
Matt Ryan finished a very average 18-for-33 for 165 yards and a touchdown on the night, the beneficiary of a very dominant running game. While Ryan's numbers were slightly skewered due to dropped passes and rather conservative play-calling, the fact remains that it just wasn't the most inspiring performance from the Falcons' signal-caller, especially considering he was up against the NFL's 30th-ranked passing defense.
Ryan got into a rhythm early in the quarter, taking what the defense gave him but yet again being plagued by tipped passes at the line of scrimmage before reverting back to being the game's dink and dunk king, the most alarming example of which was Ryan throwing a checkdown to Jason Snelling on 3rd and 14 from the New Orleans 43-yard line.
Ryan finished the quarter three-of-eight for 46 yards. While a few of those were badly thrown passes, there's not much he could've done without the right calls to push the ball downfield. By the time he did, it was already late into the quarter.
Ryan got the quarter off to a great start with a perfectly thrown pass to Tony Gonzalez in the back of the endzone for a touchdown.
However, Ryan followed that up with slightly overthrowing Roddy White on a short crossing route, a high throw to Gonzalez in the middle of the field as well as overshooting Harry Douglas one-on-one near the sideline, as most of his completed passes this quarter were checkdowns to his running backs.
Ryan finished just one-for-six for nine yards in the opening quarter, but those poor numbers weren't entirely his fault: his deep pass to White down the sideline would've fallen right into his lap if not for an uncalled pass interference; Julio Jones dropped a catchable ball on a slant pattern, another was tipped at the line and another yet thrown away. Ironically, his only completion of the quarter was nearly intercepted.
The Falcons got off to an insanely fast start, dominating at the point of attack which led to great first half play from running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. But the team lost some of its fire as the night wore on, with numerous dropped passes coming from the usually sure-handed Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, as well as the offensive line having trouble against the interior rush late in the game, all of which resulted in the Falcons converting just one of 11 third downs on the night.
Nonetheless, the offense came through when the team needed it to, namely by successfully running out the clock with under two minutes left in the game.
The Falcons' offensive struggles continued, however they were able to drive down the field just enough to allow Matt Bryant a field goal on their opening drive on offense. The Falcons fought hard to ice the game with their second offensive drive coming late in the game, but perhaps too hard as Turner was stripped and the Saints recovered the fumble. But everything worked in Atlanta's favor in the end, as the offense was able to run out the clock in the game's final minutes.
All of a sudden, that intense, motivated-looking Falcons offense turned into an uninspired group. Interior pressure made Todd McClure look like a rookie, Ryan and Jones struggled to get on the same page and White dropped yet another pass before the offense finally got their first first down in six possesions.
This quarter got off to a great start with Gonzalez catching a 17-yard touchdown pass, but the offense followed that up with dropped passes by White and Gonzalez, Ryan getting sacked, and the team unable to get more than a field goal out of a drive that started at the Saints 30-yard line.
The Falcons missed out on numerous opportunities to jump out to a huge lead at halftime. Instead, they went into the locker room up just 17-7.
The Falcons needed Turner to get off to a fast start and he did that and more with five carries for 67 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, including one 35-yard burst up the middle. Turner looks to be playing with a purpose tonight, running with power and conviction. Of course, always playing with a purpose is Rodgers, who added three carries for 31 yards on the ground.
Yeah, you read that right: A++. Nevermind allowing Drew Brees to finish with 341 yards passing on the night. Atlanta's defense was solid in the areas that count most and that includes holding the high-octane Saints offense to just 13 points and forcing five interceptions on the night––a career-high for Brees.
There's no question the defense won this game for the Falcons.
The defense continued to make big plays this quarter, with John Abraham recording the Falcons' first sack of the game to force a punt on Atlanta's first defensive drive before Kroy Biermann pressured Brees into an interception on a heads-up play by Johnathan Babineaux on the second while William Moore adds one final interception one play later to ice the game.
Whether it was on the ground or through the air, the Saints looked virtually unstoppable this quarter, carving up Atlanta's defense. The Falcons were lucky to see Lance Moore drop a sure touchdown in the endzone and Darren Sproles drop a deep pass down the sideline in quarter that was highlighted by the Falcons allowing Brees all day to throw. Improving this grade though is the Falcons' tightening up on third down to force two Saints field goals, along with a William Moore interception.
The pressure is nearly getting to the quarterback, but that's not good enough against Brees. The Falcons need to bring him down when they can; if not, the result will be similar to this quarter, which saw Brees lead the Saints to their first touchdown on a drive that saw him almost magically avoid sack after sack.
This quarter saw Sean Weatherspoon get his first career interception, but also saw the same third-down-and-long issues re-appear for the Falcons, along with a general knack for allowing gaping holes in coverage in the the deep middle of the field.
The Falcons did a fantastic job keeping both Brees and the running game in check in the opening quarter, intercepting Brees once and stuffing the run throughout. The defense looks rejuvenated the way it has swarmed to the ball on runs and short passes, but needs to do a better job getting off the field on third-and-long.
Dominique Franks did little on punt return and the coverage team struggled a bit containing Darren Sproles' own punt returns. However, consistently deep punts by Matt Bosher along with Matt Bryant's game-clinching 55-yard field goal more than made up for that.
The highlight of the quarter was also the play of the game, as Bryant was perfect from 55 yards out to give the Falcons a two-score lead.
While Bosher punted the ball well, the coverage team had a poorer showing this quarter, allowing Sproles 26 return yards on two deep punts.
This quarter saw Atlanta's special teams make its first bad plays of the night with Sproles returning a 56-yard Bosher punt 21 yards down the sideline and another 15 yards in an otherwise solid quarter that saw Matt Bryant make a 45-yard field goal and Bosher continuing to boot the ball deep.
A Solid opening kickoff and punting by Bosher, and no mistakes yet by Franks.
An aggressive start slowly deteriorated into a conservative finish for the Falcons. The final score read 23-13, but the Falcons left plenty of points on the field and the blame starts at the top with Dirk Koetter failing to consistently attack the Saints' 32nd-ranked defense and Mike Nolan unable to keep the pressure on Brees outside of the first half.
Of course, the one who shares the most blame is head coach Mike Smith. While he left Thursday night's game with his 11th victory of the season, yet another failed opportunity to keep the pedal to the metal after jumping out to a quick 17-0 lead is not a very comforting sign with the playoffs fast approaching. What is, however, is this team's resiliency and non-stop effort.
Koetter still had the Falcons conservatively dinking and dunking upfield, while Nolan equally kept it conservative calling mostly basic, four-man rushes on defense. When Nolan did get creative, he did so perhaps a bit too much, like having Abraham trying to cover Jimmy Graham downfield. Nolan was fortunate his players stepped up big by forcing two turnovers in crunch time.
When it seemed the Falcons had finally established an aggressive mindset into his team, they went back to his conservative ways this quarter. Koetter called runs up the middle, out wide and screens for most of the quarter, all of which led to a lackluster showing from the offense.
On the other side of the ball, Nolan's great calls to get pressure on Brees in the first half has virtually disappeared.
Koetter did well to mix runs, drop-back passes and play-action––his receivers just need to make plays.
Meanwhile, Nolan is getting creative lining up nearly all eleven players along the line of scrimmage to force Brees to take a timeout, but his decision to then rush just three on the ensuing play is questionable to say the least.
Most importantly, Smith needs to make sure his team's intensity doesn't lead to lost focus in a quarter that featured drops by White and Gonzalez, a personal foul on Moore and Dunta Robinson pushing a Saints player late after the play.
The aggressive meter is on high so far, with Nolan heavily blitzing Brees to force him into quick decisions, and Koetter calling a deep pass on 3rd and 7 along with setting the tone early with the running game.
Smith needed his team to come out with fire and they've done just that this first quarter. Now let's see if they can keep it up throughout the game.